Parents instinctively want to help their children when they struggle. A parent’s impulse is often to fix the problem by themselves. While this strategy makes perfect sense, especially when kids are very young, this might become counterproductive as they grow. Parents may provide a quick fix when rescuing children while denying them opportunities to practice essential skills needed to become independent adults.
We should encourage children to develop the critical thinking skills they require as they grow. Teaching children to think needs parents to do less, not more, which may be counterintuitive advice. Here are some ideas for how parents can encourage their children to think for themselves:
- Don’t be so quick to offer assistance. If your child approaches you for help with schoolwork, consider how much independent effort she has made before turning to you. Answering your child’s questions too soon can hurt her learning. Remind your child that taking a reasonable amount of time to work through problems is perfectly normal; schedule enough time for her, and encourage her to be patient with herself. When you sense that she has put in a reasonable amount of independent effort on a problem, it is acceptable to offer hints that provide just enough information to get her thinking again without providing too much information.
- Don’t point out errors before children have had a chance to figure them out. When you point out mistakes to your child too soon, he is less likely to check his own work because he knows you will. You also limit his learning and brain growth when he has to figure out if he made an error and what the error is. Finally, you may be indicating that you dislike making mistakes, which can lead to other issues such as an unwillingness to try new things. When it comes time to point out errors to your child, a better approach is to inform him that he has made at least one mistake but not to tell him what, where, or how many. This method requires him to carefully review all of his work and instills in him the habit of doing so on his own as he grows older.
- Encourage children to correct their errors. Too often, bright students simply want to forget about their mistakes in schoolwork, especially if they have been taught that intelligent people do not make mistakes. However, an error indicates that the problem was complex for your child, so she should review it and work to improve her understanding. Often we learn better from mistakes than from successes, and research shows that our brains actually grow more from making and correcting errors. Help your child see the value in mistakes by utilizing them as learning opportunities.
- Open-ended questions should be asked. — What information do you have? — Asking questions is a highly effective way of guiding your child to think his own way to the answer. What information do you lack that could be useful? How can you divide the problem into more manageable chunks? He most likely asked you many “Why?” questions when your child was younger. Turn the tables as he gets older and ask him why in the same curious, non-judgmental manner. Forming a thoughtful response takes effort, as you know from being on the receiving end of “Why?” questions. That’s a good thing for a developing mind. Remember to encourage your child’s thinking by not providing too much information in a question, such as “Shouldn’t you combine like terms first?”
- Provide challenges that require in-depth thought. Lifting light weights will not grow your muscles, and doing easy problems will not develop your child’s thinking skills. Furthermore, as long as curious, young minds are not overcome by a fear of making mistakes, they are naturally engaged by interesting, challenging problems. Intellectual challenges also provide opportunities to develop good study habits, resilience from surviving inevitable mistakes, and genuine confidence from knowing you can handle complex issues.
Yes, parents love their children too much. They want help in almost everything; however, you should back off to allow your child to grow, learn new skills, and recover from failure independently. Allowing your child to make mistakes, face natural consequences, and experience heartbreak is critical to their development and learning.